Keeping An Amphibian As A Pet: What You Need To Know

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Updated: April 4, 2022
© Dirk Ercken/Shutterstock.com

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Amphibians make up a family of cold-blooded vertebrates. They spend time both in water and on land. That’s how they got their moniker “amphibian.” The word originates from Greek, translated as “double life.” Amphibians are born with gills. Some outgrow the gills as they move into adulthood. Others keep their tails their entire lives. Among the family are toads, frogs, salamanders, caecilians and newts.

RELATED: Amphibians: Different Types, Definition, Photos, and More

According to conservationists, amphibians are nature’s most threatened class of animals. Around the world, these animals are victims. From pollution to climate change and disease, all members of the family are in danger.

On the captive front, the amphibian as a pet has long been a popular option. Sadly, that growth comes with risks. The trade harms populations. There’s a lot of mismanagement and disregard for the species’ safety, encouraging the spread of disease, injured creatures, lackluster husbandry and malnutrition.

Many jurisdictions impose restrictions and trade bans in order to protect the creatures.

Amphibians are fascinating, for sure. A wide section of consumers is drawn in for the striking colors and diversity. You’ll find a stunning array of animals with unique behavior and needs. Amphibians are docile and tame, and relatively easy to care for.

Let’s take a look at the wonderful world of amphibians and why so many people love them.

Before Buying an Amphibian

Before adopting an amphibian, you have to conduct a thorough review regarding the specific animal that draws your interest. You have to know the animal’s housing and dietary needs. Life expectancy will be important so that you better understand the investment.

Many make the mistake of assuming they know what they’re getting into. Upon realizing they were wrong, they recklessly release the pet into the wild. That’s dangerous as captive-bred amphibians are likely to die in an unstable environment.

Should you find you can no longer care for a pet (any pet), it’s best to surrender it to an animal shelter, rescue organization, or to find a new owner.

And if you’re in the market for a toy, leave amphibians be. They’re not much for handling or human contact. Some creatures get used to it but most do not. These animals are easily startled and have bad eyesight. They spend a lot of time in the dark, in burrows and hiding in the undergrowth (where they wait for prey).

Amphibians have sensitive, permeable skin. There’s also a thin membrane absorbing oxygen. Hand lotion, perfume, insecticide, soap residue and other elements we take for granted can get into the membrane and kill the animal. So, if you do insist on handling them, wash your hands and any other part of the body they may come in contact with.

You also want to consider temps when handling. Temperature differentials are a serious matter. Human hands can be too hot from washing. That, along with the stress of human contact, can actually kill a toad or frog.

One answer is to wash well with hot water and then rinse with cold. When ready, moisten the hands one last time and scoop up your pet with gentle restraint so that they don’t leap away.

If you use gloves (best strategy!), moisten the gloves before handling the animal. But be careful the creatures don’t slip from your grip. A lot of amphibians have fragile frames, easily broken by a fall.

Always supervise children closely when handling an animal and make sure they wash after (as should adults). Amphibians are potential carriers of Salmonella.

Lastly, always, always, always adopt captive-bred creatures.

How Much Does an Amphibian Cost to Own

The answer to this question is hard to gauge. There are approximately 300 species in the United States alone, while over 6,000 species exist worldwide. Narrowing down the exact price for keeping one would be quite the task.

But to give you an idea of what you’re getting into, let’s take a look at a few of the more popular species that are kept as pets:

Frogs

Frogs are low maintenance and are fun to watch. They provide educational opportunities for kids and have a strong ‘cool’ factor. Depending on the species, you’ll end up spending between $5-$80.

Axolotl

The bizarre appearance of the axolotl makes for a fascinating display. They can grow up to 12 inches in length and, unlike their cousins, reach adulthood without metamorphosizing or retiring their tails. Depending on the species, you’ll spend $30-$75.

Salamander

The salamander looks like a lizard but is an amphibian. They grow almost to eight inches in length and live up to 10 years. Price ranges vary, but you’ll shell out $10-$260.

Toad

Toads are not frogs. They’re characterized by their leathery, dry skin, large bumps on the parotid glands and short legs. They prefer to walk rather than hop. Toads run between $10-$30.

Newts

The newt is a creature that won’t appreciate handling. It will react with a powerful toxin from the skin. The creature is eye-catching and popular. The newt’s price range is $8-$150.

Environments

It’s important to create a comfortable home for an amphibian, doing your best to match their natural environment. Research is going to be invaluable here.

Here are the costs of items you need for these creatures.

Aquarium / TerrariumInitial cost$20-$100
PlantsInitial cost$10-$20
Water bowl & other accessories (Water Bowl, etc)Initial cost$5-$50
Live foodAnnual cost$100-$500
Other food (vitamins, supplements, etc.)Initial cost$50-$100
BeddingInitial cost and ongoing maintenance$20-$100
Heat lightsInitial cost and bulb replacements$15-$30
Heating padsInitial cost$20-$50

Consider hide houses ($20-$60), amphibian safe plants ($10-$20), adaptive soil or coconut fiber substrate ($15-$50).

New Owner Shopping List: What To Buy

Let’s take a closer look at items you want to consider and discuss why you want them on your shopping list.

Aquarium / Terrarium

Terrariums and aquariums serve a similar purpose but are not the same thing. What they have in common is they are types of vivaria (an enclosure set up for animals mimicking seminatural conditions).

What differentiates them is aquariums are for aquatic animals and a terrarium is a design for land plants and land animals. The typical terrarium cannot manage the pressure associated with large amounts of water. Generally, they are not even sealed to hold water.

Terrariums can certainly accommodate land amphibians, as most need an ecosystem with plants. But you do want a tank that can hold some water where the animal can play. These environments are good for frogs.

Animals like the axolotl or salamander are better off in an aquarium as they spend a lot of time underwater.

Plants

You want to select plants carefully. Just shoving a plant into your amphibian’s home won’t do. Choose plants compatible with the animal’s natural environment. Also, only use non-toxic plants as the animal may eat them. (Frisky pets can damage, uproot and destroy live plants.)

If you have a meat-eater, you may be able to pass with fake plants. But take look at bark, branches and climbing surfaces to enhance the animal’s life and your viewing pleasure.

Toys

All living creatures like entertainment and play. Your pet’s no different. Think about ramps, ladders or hammocks. All items should be safely anchored to avoid accidents. Wedge bark and branches against walls to prevent falling or breaking.

Soil

Sphagnum moss is an excellent substrate for a variety of amphibian species. You can place it under hides and shelters or atop other substrates to create humid microclimates.

Coconut husk fiber is made up of ground coconuts. Placed in water, the dry substance expands, becoming a nice floor for your pet. Manage spot cleaning and you can minimize replacing the bedding. You can mix coconut husk fiber with sand, sphagnum moss or soil, depending on the species.

Ongoing Needs: What You Need to Care for Your Amphibian

Here are things to keep in for ensuring your amphibian is always healthy and happy.

  • When you get the animal home, have the cage set up for their welcome. Give them time to acclimate to the new environment before you start handling it.
  • Once home, rinse them with dechlorinated water. You want to clean them of possible accumulated feces during transit.
  • Amphibians have a slimy covering. Dry hands can cause the skin to secret the coating and allow the transfer of bacteria.
  • Amphibians are not big fans of handling. They will always struggle to get away. Pick them up by placing the fingers of one hand on opposite sides and between the legs, head facing you.
  • Due to their porous skin, the creatures are sensitive to toxic substances in water. Talk to your breeder or local animal organization about how to avoid this.
  • Handling can stress the animal and too much can lead to starving themselves to death. A clear sign the animal’s accepted its new environment is feeding behavior.
  • Slight temps may provoke abnormalities in behavior. This includes loss of appetite and lethargy, leading to illness.
  • Some species are cannibalistic. Adults may eat tadpoles and smaller adults. Larger tadpoles eat smaller tadpoles. That’s largely due to overcrowding. House adult amphibians and larvae in low populations and give them enough food to minimize cannibalism.
  • Cover the enclosure well to avoid escaping. Nothing pets can climb on should allow them the opportunity to do get away.
  • Semi-aquatic amphibians will want to get out of the water once in a while. Give them safe-to-use rocks, branches and even plants to enjoy some fresh air.
  • Go with plastic, glass or stainless steel enclosures. There must not be any toxins in the design as they’ll leech into the water.
  • Do not clean with disinfectants or detergents. (Talk with an expert about what you should use.) Always rinse thoroughly. The smallest trace left behind can poison amphibians.
  • A few hours after a feed, flush or rinse enclosures. You want to capture uneaten food and lingering bacteria.

Exercise and Ongoing Care

Points to keep in mind concerning ongoing care and quality exercise.

  • Your pet’s environment is going to be the most important resource for keeping it safe. You want to create as natural a habitat as possible. Enclosures need a source of heat and room to rest while warming. They also require UVB and UVA light exposure for the appropriate absorption of calcium.
  • You have to avoid too much light throughout the tank. The animals need cool areas and to have an opportunity to move away from light. Amphibians also need daily darkness, up to 12 hours. Schedule cycles with natural light cycles, i.e., in the fall and winter, longer dark periods; shorter in the spring and summer.
  • Cleanliness is important. Amphibians are prone to fungal and bacterial infections, especially in a dirty environment.
  • Promote a natural environment with logs, tree limbs, rocks and plants (artificial or live depending on the species). These instruments offer the pet exercise and the opportunity to engage in normal behavior. But avoid over-parenting. Give your amphibian an engaging tank but don’t entrap them with too much stuff!

Feeding Your Amphibian

The vast majority of amphibians eat live food. Most prefer a diet of invertebrates. We’re talking all types of worms, fruit flies, springtails, mealworms, fly larvae, and delicious crickets.

Other amphibians — many aquatic — prefer vertebrates. They survive on guppies, minnows, goldfish, and newborn rats and mice.

The diet for your pets are risky. It provides poor calcium to phosphorus levels as invertebrates bred for food are deficient. They also lack vitamins that help prevent disease. Minerals and vitamin supplements help.

There are two ways to go about doing this.

Gut Loading

You want to feed diets that are commercially available and high in calcium to insects 48 hours before giving them to your amphibian. Consult with a vet about how to create ratios for the deficiency.

Coating / Dusting

Take a powdered multivitamin with calcium and D3 ingredients and coat (dust) any feed with it. Talk with a vet or breeder about how to properly prepare this supplementation.

How Long Will Your Amphibian Live

Amphibians have a vast range of lifespans. Some live up to two years. Others will be with you for over two decades. There’s the unique olm. The creature is a cousin of the salamander and a cave-dweller.

In comparison to most amphibians, the olm lives, breeds, eats and sleeps underwater. Captive olms have lived over 70 years with a max of over 100 years!

There’s a frog in Papua New Guinea that has two unique characteristics. It’s the world’s smallest vertebrate. The frog also has the shortest amphibian lifespan and that’s one year.

Common Health Issues for Amphibians

Amphibians do not have the strongest protective systems. They easily contract diseases and falls can result in serious injury. Early treatment and prevention can minimize the threat.

Efficient housing is also critical. Ironically, the warm and moist conditions of the ideal environment can also promote the growth of molds and bacteria. A poorly-managed amphibian environment — lack of sanitation, poor diet and water quality, improper setup, overcrowding, too much or improper handling — promises bacterial infections.

Here are common diseases that threaten amphibians.

  • Chlamydiosis
  • Mycobacteriosis
  • Red-leg Syndrome
  • Chytridiomycosis
  • Chromomycosis
  • Saprolegniasis

Where to Buy Your Amphibian

Amphibians are popular and plentiful. You won’t have a hard time finding them. But you need to be careful about where you purchase them. The market’s saturated with unreputable practices and market trade.

Online

Many sellers offer fast delivery (next day). Make sure you vet the resource. Talk with animal organizations about your intentions and what to look out for.

In-store

Making a personal trip to your local pet store is your best bet. You can scope out the amphibians, their environments, get answers and validate your shopping list.

You can also check out animal shelters and rescues. It’s unlikely you’ll find an amphibian in there. But you might be able to find out the best places to go.

Special Considerations With Amphibians

Amphibians are great pets and fascinating to watch. They are fairly active and their home environments have to come as close to natural as possible.

The frog species is ideal for beginners. The setup for a White’s Tree or American Tree frog is simple. (White’s Tree frogs have no issue with handling.) You can also check out the African Bullfrog.

Intermediates looking for a colorful pet should investigate the Amazon Milk frog or a Spotted salamander. Or the exotic axolotl if you’re experienced with aquatic setups. Care requirements for these creatures will kick up a notch though.

Budgett’s frogs or a Tiger salamander are excellent choices for the experienced amphibian fan. Budgett’s are voracious eaters and watching them hunt in semi-aquatic tanks will be amazing. Tiger salamanders, raised from larvae to adulthood, will need environmental adjustments until maturity.

About the Author

AZ Animals is a growing team of animals experts, researchers, farmers, conservationists, writers, editors, and -- of course -- pet owners who have come together to help you better understand the animal kingdom and how we interact.

Keeping An Amphibian As A Pet: What You Need To Know FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Do All Amphibians Lay Eggs?

The animals reproduce by laying soft-shelled eggs. Most females lay eggs in water. The babies (tadpoles or larvae) live in water.

Do Amphibians Bite?

Some do. But it’s rare. But they’re not poisonous (with the exception of, according to a 2020 study, the caecilians).

Is Breeding Frogs Difficult?

No. Most species of frog is easily bred in captivity. You have to be knowledgeable of reproductive cycles and protecting newborns from potential cannibalism.

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